Over time, Doris Ulmann became almost obsessively focused on the reclusive inhabitants of America's hinterlands, and many of her photographs are views of life in rural Appalachian enclaves, places where many of the people she met in the 1930s appeared unchanged from their forebears in previous centuries. Selected are rare, exquisite works that capture the people and souls of the Highlands.
Doris Ulmann might be surprised to learn that it has taken so long to be acknowledged as a photojournalist. As a student of Clarence H. White, she would have been encouraged to publish her photographs in books and magazines and during the last decade of her life, she made at least some of her photographs for that express purpose. She did not need to earn a living but she evidently felt compelled to make a life for herself, which she did through photography.
Trained as an art photographer in the 1910s, Ulmann invited celebrities to her apartment at 1000 Park Avenue in New York City to discuss their work and to pose for her camera. A secular humanist, she ultimately worked with Progressive and Social Gospel activists and feminists using her camera to provide socially meaningful images of "the folk," people outside the rapidly industrializing American mainstream. These included Native Americans, African Americans, craftsmen, musicians, and members of religious communities, as seen in her Appalachian and Sea Island photographs.
Publication of Ulmann's photographs in magazines were part of the transition from magazines illustrated with drawings to those with photographs, and, in the 1930s, to picture magazines like Life (1936) and Look (1937). Her photographs helped change the way we perceive and therefore represent the people she photographed, from quaint, picturesque peasants to individuals with dignity and purpose in the modern world.
The Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress has more than 160 platinum prints by Ulmann and continues to acquire her work. The images, which span her whole career from 1915 to 1934, include first edition sets of The Faculty of the College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia University in the City of New York: Twenty-four Portraits (1919), A Book of Portraits of the Faculty of the Medical Department of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore (1922), and A Portrait Gallery of American Editors (1925). The Prints and Photographs Division also houses a general reference copy of Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933) while the Rare Book Division maintains three limited edition copies, including one in the Goudy Collection and another in the Rosenwald Collection with a plate signed by Doris Ulmann laid in.
The Ulmanns had been highly successful merchants and textile manufacturers for generations. Doris Ulmann's father and brother immigrated to New York in 1867 from the Czech Republic by way of Germany. Doris Mae Ulmann grew to adulthood at 129 West Eighty-sixth Street in a refined genteel world. In Europe the family had been Reformed Jewish but in New York, Doris' branch was part of Felix Adler's Ethical Culture Movement that believed education was the route to improve humanity and incorporated ideas from various systems including Christianity. From 1900 to 1903 Doris attended the Ethical Culture School teacher training course and obtained a teachers degree that reinforced the progressive values of her household. She valued the individual, regardless of economic or ethnic background and retained the school's philosophy of training people to transform their "faulty" environments in a "beneficent" manner throughout her life.
Becoming a Photographer
Ulmann married at age thirty-two after nursing her mother through a final illness. From 1914 until 1917, together with her husband Charles Jaeger, a surgeon at Columbia University Medical School, she attended New York's Clarence H. White School of Photography, the first art photography school in the United States. Like most early art photographers, including Alfred Stieglitz, White School students worked in a soft-focus style known as Pictorialism and often manipulated the surfaces of their prints to create unique images like paintings.
While she studied with White, Ulmann mastered the large 6 ½ by 8 ½ inch glass-plate tripod-mounted folding view camera to make both studio and field studies, with a soft-focus lens. She photographed many genre scenes, tableaux, and portraits. She and her husband participated in the activities of the Pictorial Photographers of America (PPA) founded by White students. The PPA attempted to advance photography as art through education by holding annual exhibitions, publishing annual and circulating photo exhibitions to select public art spaces through the early 1930s.
Between 1918 and 1925, Ulmann made portraits of New York and Baltimore physicians and staff at prestigious medical schools and of editors of American magazines which she published in three volumes designed by celebrated typesetters and founders of The Village Press, Frederic and Bertha Goudy. Adherents to the design principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement, they made each volume more sophisticated than the one before. Ulmann's essay for the volume on editors reveals her awareness of the growing importance of periodicals in shaping thoughts:
Magazines are so great a part of our daily life that almost unbeknown to us they mold our opinions and colour our views on most of the great problems of the day. Insidiously they have become a part of us and often times the views we hold as our own have in truth been formed by the editors of our favourite magazines. It is but natural that we should care to know what manner of men are these, who have thus formulated our ideas, coloured our thoughts and directed our perception of humour. We have generally thought of an editor as one closed off behind innumerable doors, an enigma, inaccessible. In this volume an attempt has been made to bring the editors to book, to portray their personality and something of their character by means of photographic prints.
Ushering in the Era of Photojournalism in America
In 1917 Ulmann began to lecture at the White School. She was familiar with White's collaboration with art directors, publishers, and graphic designers and with the Art Director's Club he helped found in 1920 and their efforts to expand the role of artists in the print communications revolution of the 1920s. She began to invite celebrities including prominent intellectuals, actors, artists, explorers, and writers to her home for chat and portrait making.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, photojournalism became a legitimate, if disreputable, profession, with those employed by tabloids and daily newspapers at the bottom while magazine photographers occupied a status at a "cut above." Photographers for national magazines, such as National Geographic, McClure's, and Vanity Fairgarnered greater prestige. Starting in the 1920s, Ulmann photographed many genre scenes, tableaux, and portraits, including prominent intellectuals, actors, artists, explorers, and writers which she published in art and literary periodicals such as PPA, Bookman, and Scribner's Magazine, magazines that placed her in the highest category of photojournalistic "respectability."
Acting on her Humanist Beliefs : Appalachia
In 1921, while divorcing her husband, Ulmann underwent major surgery for chronic ulcers. Friends noted that afterwards she was changed. Although she continued to make and exhibit her art photographs to critical acclaim, she devoted more effort to pursuing her longstanding interest in people "for whom life had not been a dance."
In 1925, Ulmann began traveling in the southeastern United States where she photographed people in "primitive and pre-industrial" communities, including religious ones. She often posed people performing outdated tasks in antiquarian clothing. Names went unrecorded; people were important to her primarily as types. She wrote about the aesthetics of her subject selections, "A face that has the marks of having lived intensely, that expresses some phase of life, some dominant quality or intellectual power, constitutes for me an interesting face."
The publication record of Ulmann's Appalachian photographs suggests that she became increasingly involved with organizations founded to celebrate the handmade object and dedicated to uplifting the makers of those objects. In 1928, her Appalachian photographs appeared in Scribner's Magazine in June and in Mentor in August.
In 1930 she displayed photographs in the first exhibition of the Southern Mountain Handicraft Guild in Knoxville where Allen Eaton saw them. Eaton was the leading advocate of American handicrafts and a representative of the Russell Sage Foundation that funded projects to improve social and living conditions in the U.S. Subsequently, Ulmann coordinated her mountain trips with Eaton's Foundation work. In 1932, folksinger John Jacob Niles began to assist Ulmann on her photographic excursions as he toured the same areas doing musical research and fieldwork, a collaboration that lasted even after her death. He included Ulmann's photographs in magazine articles he wrote, thus expanding the circulation of her work.
In 1932, the feminist and social activist Southern Women's Educational Alliance commissioned Ulmann to photograph young people in rural Kentucky. Her photographs promoted discussions that soon led the organization to become the Alliance for Guidance of Rural Youth. In May 1934, four of her photographs illustrated the Survey Graphic article, "People of an American Folk School," about the Campbell Folk School and its cooperatives, most of them operated by women. These organizations provided practical and religious education as means of social advancement.
At the same time, she depicted the culture of Appalachian mountain people, Ulmann also produced her best known and most artistic publication, the deluxe edition of Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933) by novelist Julia Peterkin. Visits to Peterkin's South Carolina farm inspired Ulmann to portray the life of the Gullah people of the Sea Islands, a unique vanishing culture. Peterkin's essays on the South accompany Ulmann's pictures from 1929 to 1933 of African-American workers on her farm. The portraits convey a haunting, supernatural element, as though the photographer was looking backward from the future.
In February 1934 the Library of Congress exhibited more than 100 platinum prints of Ulmann's Appalachian subjects of which it later acquired 44. While photographing in Appalachia in July, she became critically ill and died on August 28 in New York at age fifty-two. On her death bed, Ulmann created the Ulmann Foundation at Berea School to further the work. Her Foundation also donated another 110 prints to the Library of Congress.
When Eaton's exhibition and book, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands, came out in 1937, Ulmann's photographs accompanied the text. Her pictures of the makers of folk objects sometimes appeared alongside the objects themselves. Through judicious publication and exhibition, Ulmann attained her greatest wish, "that these human records shall serve some social purpose."
Contributions to Photojournalism
In the comfortable surroundings of her home, Ulmann captured people displaying greater ease than was typical in studio portraits. As photographs were assuming ever greater importance in magazines, publishers welcomed her photographs of celebrities looking accessible to the viewers. Away from home, she had an uncanny ability to communicate with people nonverbally regardless of their station in life.
Ulmann also expanded the vocabulary of photography to include all peoples and gave prominence to people outside the mainstream by publishing their portraits in books and periodicals. She was a transitional figure in the shift from fine art photography that began in the late nineteenth century to the socio-documentary mode that dominated the first half of the twentieth century when she coordinated portions of her trips with shooting scripts and needs of progressive organizations agencies, pre-dating the work of photographers for the famed Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration) photographic project that started in the summer of 1935, only one year after her death.
By Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2010. Last revised: August 2010.
Roll, Jordan, Roll
The question of Negro slavery—its origins, evils, economic value and ultimate consequences—has now evoked nearly two decades of searching reexamination. Since the 1950's no other question in American history has occasioned more lively controversy sweeping reinterpretation. The,, debate has tested new methods of discovering and weighing evidence; has moved into esoteric regions of social psychology, folklore, anthropology, econometrics and constitutional law; and, by reaching out for comparative soundings in other cultural and historical experiences, has broadened the very meaning of historical understanding.
The professional historians’ preoccupation with slavery cannot be dismissed as a faddish offshoot the civil rights struggles of the 1960's. Those struggles simply dramatized a point on which many black historians—and a few white historians—had long insisted: that the conflicts generated by slavery produced the only major class struggle and ideological rift in American history. The Civil War stands out as the Grand Canyon of our historical landscape not because it was the needless conflict of a “blundering generation,” but because its origins and consequences laid bare the terrifying substructure of American life, revealing the price that we and our forefathers have paid for our world‐envied success. The awesome scar has usually been romanticized as a noble wound. But for a society so dedicated to instant landscaping and to plastic surgery, our historical Grand Canyon has also provided an undeletable record, stratum by stratum, of the basic built social order.
Eugene D. Genovese was one of the first modern scholars to view American slavery in the perspective of world history. As a Western Marxist, influenced by Maurice Dobb, Eric J. Hobsbawm and, especially, by Antonio GI amsci, Genovese pictured the emergence of the Southern slavocracy as a reactionary, “seigneurial” challenge to 19th‐century capitalism. Although Genovese saw the slave systems of the New World as the unsavory offspring of Europe's lust for world markets and commercial profits, he also insisted that the relationship between master and slave was fundamentally different from that between employer and wage earner‐‐1‐so different, in fact, that slavery always tended to create a culture and way life antithetical to capitalism. Yet these seigneurial tendencies came to full fruition only in the American South, which was the only slave society to acquire ideological independence as well as economic and military self‐sufficiency. Between the revolutions of the 18th and 20th centuries, the Civil War thus loomed as the only serious challenge to capitalistic hegemony.
Genovese's previous work established hls own hegemony over critical segments of the historiography of slavery. But thus far his extensive writings have taken the form of preliminary and uneven essays. “Roll, Jordan, Roll” is Genovese's long‐awaited magnum opus. It is also the most profound, learned and detailed analysis of Negro slavery to appear since World War II.
“Roll, Jordan, Roll” covers so much ground and presents such rich mixtures of information and argument that its theme cannot be summarized without some distortion. Genovese begins by describing American Negro slavery as a system of class rule and class exploitation distinguished by its racial form and by the complex and ambivalent relationships between slaves, masters and non‐slaveholding whites. For the slaves—as for the victims of most forms of oppression—the serious threats did not arise from the system's physical cruelty and material deprivations. Paradoxically, the worst dangers lay in the masters’ good will and collective conscience, or rather in the paternalistic ideology that shaped good will and conscience to the mas
The masters, even while affirming their own absolute authority, strove to convince the slaves of the moral legitimacy of the system. They shamelessly contended that all blacks were born to be slaves and that slaves were the mere instruments of their owners’ wills. Yet by playing the role of personal provider and protector, the slaveholder tried to prove his right to his slaves’ gratitude. American slaves, more than those in any other New World society, faced the peril of total dependency and loss of self‐respect.. The explanation, Genovese insists, is not to be found in the physical severity of the regime or, as Stanley Elkins has argued, in the lack of institutional restraints on individual self‐interest. Rather, the South emerged as the only New World society to develop a truly paternalistic culture and world view. And since the South was also the only New World society in which the black population rapidly increased through reproduction, its lack of dependence on imported labor from Africa deprived the slaves of continuing contact
But as Genovese proceeds to show in his remarkably sensitive reading of slave narratives, the slaves were never the passive, receptive instruments their masters wanted them to be. The slaves interpreted paternalism on their own terms and succeeded in redefining the limits of their masters’ power. In countless ways, paternalistic gestures evoked expectations and responses precisely the reverse of those intended by the masters: “By developing a sense of moral worth and by asserting rights, the slaves transformed their acquiescence in paternalism into a rejection of slavery itself, although their masters assumed acquiescence in the one to demonstrate acquiescence in the other.”
Genovese's great gift is his ability to penetrate the minds of both slaves and masters, revealing not only how they viewed themselves and each other, but also how their contradictory perceptions’ interacted. If the system cultivated self‐deceptions on both sides, the illusions of the masters were particularly dangerous. Convinced of the righteousness of their power, the slaveholders were tragically vulnerable to the traumatic discovery, at the time of the Civil War, that their slaves were not the grateful, submissive creatures they had imagined them to be, and that therefore the master class was not what it had imagined itself to be.
For ,Genovese, the “story” of slave life is a testament of the power and perseverance of the human spirit under conditions of extreme oppression. Largely as a result of their profound religious faith and affirmation of life, the slaves won their struggle to preserve some degree of individual dignity and of collective consciousness as a “black nation,” but at the cost of concessions that ill‐prepared them for the future. Ultimately the conflicts engendered by slavery could only be resolved by a destruction of the delicate checks and balances of the paternalist regime, including the checks that had restrained the racism of lower‐class whites by channeling it in support of slavery,_The collapse of paternalism thus prepared the way for a century of
“Roll, Jordpn, Roll” covers an incredible range of topics and offers fresh insights on nearly every page. Genovese takes. slave weddings and funerals as seriously as he takes the monstrous discrepancies in Southern slave law. He seems as much at home in slave kitchens as he is when discussing Afro‐American language, clothing and rhythms of time and labor. He is at his very best when he seeks to rehabilitate two of the most maligned and stereotyped figures in American history: the black Mammy and the black slave driver. This brilliant tour de force rests on an appreciation that the supreme test of paternalism hinged on those slaves who were accorded some measure of authority and leadership, and who, by mediating between black and white worlds, exposed the underlying absurdities of slavery.
The drivers, for example, proved that black slaves could manage production, rule their people and even make or break white overseers. The Mammy, as a diplomat, confidante and surrogate mistress of the plantation, dramatized the weaknesses and dependency of the whites. Yet Genovese convincingly argues that both the Mammy and driver occupied untenable positions, since they paid for their dignity and leadership by reinforcing the paternalist order. The tragedy of the Mammy lay “not in her abandonment of her own people, but in her inability to offer her individual power and beauty to black people on terrriF they could accept without themselves sliding further into a system of paternalistic dependency.”
Unfortunately, “Roll, Jordan, Roll” also suffers from serious flaws. The meaning of paternalism is devastatingly clear when Genovese discusses specific situations of dependency, accommodation and resistance. The concept becomes hazy when extended as a general historical category. Genovese seems to have retreated from the term “seigneurial” much as he earlier retreated from “feudal.” Yet he still equates paternalism with a “precapitalist” stage and thus with various preceding forms of feudal or semifeudal society. It is sufficient here to say that he has not moved far in clarifying the relationship between paternalism and capitalism. No doubt Southern paternalism was antithetical to capitalism in important respects. But Genovese's perceptive account of legal and social reforms within the slave system is only obscured by his insistence on their “precapitalist” characteristics. Similar reforms have strengthened ruling‐class hegemony, as he would be quick to acknowledge, in both capital
Genovese is masterful when he turns to social psychology, particularly when he demonstrates the concrete relationships between seeming opposites, such as cruelty and humaneness, ‘kindness and hate, or accommodation and resistance. He is at his weakest—as signaled by his prose—when he theorizes on the grand designs of history. His infrequent excursions into metahistory carry an orphic quality and are often marked by a pontifical tone. Occasionally he attempts to browbeat the reader by invoking without explanation some obscure authority (no doubt a legitimate one) and then delivering dogmatic and undeveloped generalizations. But then strain and bad shots always seem flagrant in a champion.
Nevertheless, Genovese's weaknesses cannot be dismissed as minor lapses, since they concern the development, integration and final resolution of his major themes. Paradoxically, it is not the loose Marxist framework that unifies “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” but rather conceptual source seldom associated with conventional Marxist theory—Christianity. The book's title comes from a slave spiritual; the text and chapter headings are studded with Biblical quotations. Genovese's key argument, clearly addressed with glee to agnostic liberals, is that religion provided slaves with stamina and selfrespect, developing into “the organizing center of their resistance within accommodation.” Genovese perceives the slaves’ religion as a complex blend of African and Christian norms, not as an idehlogy handed down from above. And precisely because religion served as the touchstone for both the masters’ paternalism and the slaves’ independence of soul, it became the major battleground'‐for psychological
Genovese acknowledges that this wellspring of spiritual, strength was better suited for survival against an oppressive regime than for effective political action after emancipation. His views on the psychologically crippling effects of slavery present a realistic antidote to Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's recent and much‐acclaimed “Time on the Cross,” a book which celebrates the slaves’ prodigious virtues as workers—seemingly as a way of resolving the conflicts that arise from the authors’ liberal indignation over the moral wrongs of a system ‘which, in its efficiency, productivity and material reciprocity, appears to meet all the tests of modern welfare
For Genovese, it was not the Protestant ethic but Christianity, even in the form of “diluted and perverted Protestantism,” which sustained the slaves: “Christianity offered to the oppressed and the despised the image of God crucified by power, greed, and malice and yet in the end resurrected, triumphant, and redeeming the faithful. However much Christianity taught submission to slavery, it also carried message of foreboding to the master class and of resistance to the enslaved.” Genovese deliberately ignores the tendencies within Anglo‐American Protestantism that developed into militant abolitionism, within the very “superstructure” of bourgeois capitalism, and which thereby, for the first time in human history, made slavery a serious problem. Nevertheless, his contribution to Marxist and radical history may well lie in his penetrating appreciation that a religious “superstructure,” while intimately related to the material conditions of life, is what gives life meaning and direction. He shows that it was precisely such meaning and direction that saved American slaves from the ultimate dehumanization.
September 29, 1974 | David Brion Davis